BONN, Germany — With a digital clock ticking in giant red numbers, U.N. climate negotiators ended another round of talks this week, nibbling at the edges of a new climate change treaty but frustrated _ again _ at failing to reach the heart of an accord.
After 16 months of talks by thousands of delegates from some 190 countries, it's time to try something else.
Later this month, the spotlight shifts from the unwieldy negotiations involving nearly every country on earth to the world's 17 most powerful economies. Among them, they are responsible for most of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are causing the Earth to overheat.
The aim is to draft a new agreement to regulate carbon emissions, replacing the 1998 Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012.
The new accord is due to be concluded at a U.N. conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, which begins _ according to the digital countdown _ 242 days, 12 hours some minutes and seconds after the talks in Bonn adjourned Wednesday night.
Haggling over every detail and concept, the U.N. talks are drawing the general outline of a Copenhagen agreement. But they have made little headway on the core issues: fixing mandatory emission reduction targets for industrial countries, setting objectives for developing countries to rein in their own rapidly expanding emissions, and raising some $100 billion a year to help poor countries adjust to changing climate conditions.
A deal requires political decisions from both industrial and developing nations, but each group is waiting for the other to put its cards on the table.
So last month, President Barack Obama announced he was reviving a Bush-era gathering of the key players on both sides, now called the Major Economies Forum. The first meeting is scheduled for April 27-28 in Washington, with more leading up to a July summit in Italy.
The idea of the more intimate forum is to "try and generate a new level of political will," said Jonathan Pershing, the new chief U.S. delegate to the U.N. talks.
"We look at the last couple of years in this negotiation. It has made only very modest progress," Pershing told reporters.
Environmental activists, who monitor U.S. moves with a critical eye, agree the smaller group holds out some hope for a breakthrough.
"Because it's a heads of state forum, and they can bring in finance ministers and other players ... perhaps they can break the logjam," said Alden Meyer, of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
Among those invited are the swiftly developing economies of China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and South Africa. Korea and Japan join the U.S., Russia and several European countries from the industrial world, as well as representatives of the European Union. Denmark won an invitation as host of the decisive Copenhagen meeting.
Possibly of equal importance, the world's two biggest polluters will go head-to-head on climate issues when Obama visits Chinese President Hu Jintao in the second half of the year.
But what about the rest of the world?
"We're confused," said Kevin Conrad, the delegate from Papua New Guinea. "Does it help the negotiations? Or is it a distracting side show?"
Conrad said Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, first summoned the major economies meeting to skirt the U.N. process.
Although Obama has announced ambitious domestic plans to reverse Bush's laggard climate change policy, he has yet to establish his international credentials, said Conrad, who is a vocal advocate for small island countries that will be among the hardest hit by climate change.
If the major political decisions will be made by what's becoming known as the MEF, what will happen to the U.N. talks?
They go on at an even more intensive pace. Delegates in Bonn decided to add more two more sessions to the two previously scheduled rounds before convening in Copenhagen. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also has called a climate summit to coincide with the annual General Assembly meeting in September.
No matter where the deal is struck, it all has to come together in Copenhagen.
"None of us cares what the MEF agrees. They still have to bring it back here," Conrad said.
The U.S. doesn't disagree.
"Our intent is to use this process, the U.N. forum, to create an agreement," Pershing said.
Arthur Max has covered climate change negotiations since 2000.